Thursday, June 16, 2011

MacCulloch, Chapter 10

The title here is "Latin Christendom: New Frontiers (500-1000)." MacCulloch begins by insisting that the period from the break up of the old Western Roman Empire to the tenth century really shouldn't be called the Dark Ages. It's more neutral and fair, he says, to call those times the early Middle Ages. How Christianity got along during this period is the subject of Chapter 10.

Changing Allegiances: Rome, Byzantium and Others

Many descendants of the aristocracy from the former empire learned that their professional aspirations were best satisfied by leadership in the Roman Church. For its part, the church coexisted with Gothic Arian chieftains, like Theoderic. Increasingly, religious leaders from Rome emphasized a division of authority: the emperors in Constantinople were the secular leaders, but the Pope in Rome was the leader in spiritual matters. In that sense, the Pope was more important than was the Emperor. Pope Hormisdas (514-23) provides an example of contemporary claims to authority:

Christ built his Church on St Peter, and so in the apostolic see the Catholic faith has always been kept without stain. There is one communion defined by the Roman see, and in that I hope to be, following the apostolic see in everything and affirming everything decided thereby (p. 326).

At times such rhetoric seemed to be followed, but at other times not. A few especially-strong characters like Gregory I (aka, the Great, who was Pope from 590 to 604) did much to establish papal authority. Perhaps even more important to the rise of the Holy Roman Empire were the conversions of some of the barbarian kings formerly dedicated to Arianism. Clovis (predecessor of the Frankish kings name Louis) was the greatest of these.

Missions in Northern Europe (500-600)

This section describes the Christianity of the British Isles before and after the time of Augustine (not the Bishop of Hippo) sent by Gregory the Great as an evangelist. Ireland had already been Christianized by St. Patrick. And what Augustine found in England was a form of Christianity and a society that were quite different from what he knew on the Continent. We would know much less about these events if it were not for the great English historian Bede, author of "The Ecclesiastical History of the people of the Angli." MacCulloch emphasizes at the end that what was significant about Augustine's mission was not that he Christianized the British Isles. Again, much of that work was already done. The significance of Augustine was his emphasis on obedience to Rome.

Obedience Anglo-Saxons and Other Converts (600-800)

During this period, a much greater percentage of those who lived in the British Isles embraced Christianity and especially the authority of Rome. People in general wanted to be associated with the prestige of old Roman society, and the Roman Church's connections with Peter gave it a special credibility. From England, this particular interest and conviction spread to central Europe. In virtually all cases, the "conversions" of the peoples of the Continent did not amount to a change from paganism to Christianity. Instead, these were conversions of Christian people to the recognition of Rome and subjection to the Pope. During this period, when people did experience a conversion, this amounted to a Christian deciding to become a nun or a monk.

Charlemagne, Carolingians and a New Roman Empire (800-1000)

Charles Martel (676-741) had five sons, one of whom was Pippin III (the Short). And Pippin became the father of Charles the Great = Charles Magnus = Charlemagne (747-814). (This information from a basic encyclopedia). MacCulloch's section here deals with the transition from the Merovingian to these Carolingian kings and their careers. During this period, the papacy and Carolingian dynasty marginalized the position of the Byzantines and represented the early beginnings of the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne reigned for many years and brought about a renaissance in the production of manuscripts of ancient documents, some of which had almost been completely lost. This was the rise of the minuscule cursive which sped up the pace of making manuscripts. Also during this time, Benedictine monasticism grew in its stature as a sanctifying influence for society. For example, priests and monks could pray and participate in the Mass in order to offset the sins of war. The Carolingian kings were aware that public penance could be an effective political act. The monasteries seemed satisfied by their public presence and by the social control that they exerted.

At this point in my reading of MacCulloch, something that strikes me is the author's attention to the wide array of influences and factors in the history of Christianity. A different way of approaching the task would be to trace out mainly the history of Christian beliefs and doctrines, the decisions of councils, etc. In other words, one way of writing Christian history would be to focus on of the interpretation of Scripture and the development of tradition. By contrast, MacCulloch emphasizes how things like architecture and liturgy, monuments, politics, names, symbols, and even coins both shaped and reflected how people lived, what they thought and how they understood the world. This much less "gnostic" approach prevents the story from becoming nothing more than a series of biographies of important thinkers or a survey of the evolution of Christian doctrine.

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